Friday, May 04, 2012

Sermon: "Grace for Unitarian Universalists" (Delivered 4-22-12)

For the past week or two, I’ve been asking people to tell me about what grace means to them.  Several of the responses I’ve received are sprinkled throughout this sermon.  But, I begin with just one response.  Earlier this week Lane and I went to a park for our weekly time of theological reflection.  We talked about our understandings of grace.  While we were sitting there, discussing grace, a woman with a dog came by.  We had a brief chat with the woman and I asked her what her dog’s name was.  “Grace,” she answered.  Lane and I glanced at each other.  What a coincidence!  Amazed, I asked the woman why she had chosen that name for her dog.  She replied, “Oh, you know, for the obvious reasons.”


Obviously!  Grace is one of those theological words that resist simple and easy definition.  Its meaning crosses boundaries; its nature is hard to define.  One member of the worship committee commented that when she thinks about grace, she thinks about something that seems to float, something with a light and airy quality.  In other words, the opposite of something solid and distinct.  David Blanchard’s words from our reading agree.  “Grace just sneaks up on us and often steals away before we know what happened…  Grace is sometimes beyond our understanding.  But from time to time it pays us each a visit.”

This morning’s sermon is going to first share some ways of thinking about grace.  Then, we’re going to layer on some Unitarian Universalist theology in order to deepen our thinking about grace.  Finally, we’re going to go beyond theology and talk about the ways grace can and does intersect with our lives.

A tentative working definition of grace might say that grace is favor or fortune that comes to us unbidden, that is impossible for us to do anything to merit or deserve.  That I’m aware of, we’ve had three children and two dogs named Grace in this church community.  One member of our church tells me that she named her dog Grace and she literally meant it.  Dogs, she explained, give us love, companionship, and devotion beyond our capacity to earn it.  They look past our shortcomings and blemishes, our foibles and failings, and favor us unconditionally.

Etymologically, grace is related to expressions of thankfulness.  We might mention the Spanish gracias, the Italian grazie, and the Latin gratia.  There is a clear connection between grace and gratitude.  One step removed is the Latin gratus, which means pleasing, and there we find words like gratifying and gratuity.  Or, take the opposite.  Even if we are not sure about the workings of grace, we know what is meant by a disgrace, an ingrate, a persona non-gratis.

The idea of grace conjures up an awareness that many things in our lives can be thought of as accidents.  The poet Jane Kenyon, in her poem “Otherwise,” writes, “I got out of bed / on two strong legs. / It might have been / otherwise.  I ate / cereal, sweet / milk, ripe, flawless / peach.  It might / have been otherwise.”

It might have been otherwise.  If your life ever brings you into contact with people whose suffering seems overwhelming, you might have repeated this phrase to yourself, or perhaps a variation of it, such as the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Have you ever uttered a phrase like that to yourself?  In my mind, I rewind the script of my life, back to my young adulthood, back to my adolescence, back to my childhood, or back even to my birth.  In my mind, I replay my life with different choices or different fortunes, different opportunities or different circumstances.  I imagine my own life otherwise.  It might have been otherwise.  There,but for the grace of God go I.

For me, one time when I’ve definitely said this to myself is right after I’ve visited someone in jail.  I have had occasion to make such visits as your minister, but fortunately, not often.  “There but for the grace of God go I” is also a saying that comes to the forefront of my mind when serving at the soup kitchen, or officiating at the difficult and tragic memorial service.  It would apply to the refugee camp, to the city ravaged by the natural disaster, wherever there is wholesale suffering in our world.

For religious liberals, understanding grace in these terms may seem problematic.  After all, the idea that God has a plan that involves some being chosen to have a good life and many being chosen to have miserable lives is repulsive.  And, it is also a copout.  A good portion of human suffering is not due to chance in any meaningful way.  I return to the experience of visiting someone in jail.  I find myself thinking of such visits that I’ve made to visit people in jail because I’ve recently been reading a book about race and our nation’s brutal system of mass incarceration.  The book argues, convincingly, that the criminal justice system is designed to be a form of social control that systematically disenfranchises people of color.  (I may come back to this book in a sermon later this year.)  Seen from this perspective, the larger societal perspective, grace, as it is commonly understood, is not all that relevant to the conversation.   Systems of oppression that have a human design also have a human solution.

But, even if we do reject the idea of a God blessing some with favor, it cannot be denied that fortune or dumb luck or random chance most certainly have played more than a small role in making our lives what they are and not otherwise.  Is grace nothing more than the aspects of our lives that are left entirely to chance?


I recently had lunch with my friend Aaron Roberts, a minister in the United Church of Christ, a liberal denomination.  I asked him to tell me about what grace means to him.  Aaron said something very smart.  He explained that our theology of grace is inversely proportional to our theological anthropology.  To translate and unpack that statement, what my friend was saying was that to the extent that we have a positive view of human nature and human potential, to the extent that we have a high estimation of ourselves as human beings, we won’t tend to think of ourselves as in need of grace.  However, if we have a negative view of human nature and low expectations of human potential, we will see grace everywhere.  It will all be grace.

Where do Unitarian Universalists fall on this spectrum of holding human nature in either high or low esteem?  Let me give you a hint.  When we include the hymn “Amazing Grace” in our hymnal, we give our members the option of substituting the word “soul” for the word “wretch.”  It is written right there on the page.  Our tradition, historically, has had about as high a view of human nature as it is possible to have.  We have tended to regard ourselves and one another as capable and competent and good.  And, even more than that, we have historically embraced justice, which to us means the work of refashioning a world in which the random accident of being born one race, or one gender, or one nationality, or one socioeconomic class does not foreclose a life of opportunity or security or happiness. 

According to my friend, such a hopeful theology may not leave a lot of room for grace.  There is a very old episode of The Simpsons in which Bart is asked to say grace before the family dinner.  Bart folds his hands together, bows his head, and says, “Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”  Such a belief in our own radical self-sufficiency can close us off to grace.  Author Marilynne Robinson writes, “It is [Jesus’] consistent teaching that the comfortable, the confident, [and] the pious stand in special need of the intervention of grace… The problem is that we don’t recognize pride or hubris in ourselves, any more than Oedipus did, any more than Job’s so-called comforters.  It can be so innocuous-seeming a thing as confidence that one is right, is competent, is clear-sighted, or confidence that one is pious or pure in one’s motives.”  In the story of John Newton and the composition of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” it is clear that it is the author of the hymn who is most in need of the intervention of a transforming grace.

I wonder.  Is there a way to keep our mostly hopeful view of humanity and still make room for something like grace?

I want to describe two different ways in which human beings are said to embody grace.  The first way is to be graceful.  We are particularly used to using the word “graceful” to describe accomplishments in the fields of art and athletics.  Dancers, gymnasts, figure skaters, second basemen pivoting to complete the double play.  Grace is making something very difficult look smooth and effortless through practice and mastery.  It involves poise and sophistication.  Being graceful is not an exclusively human quality.  Butterflies, soaring birds, and running antelope are thought of and referred to as graceful.  This meaning mostly refers to a quality of motion.

There is another word, though, that is used to describe human beings who are said to embody grace.  That word is “gracious,” and it is almost exclusively used to describe human beings.  Graciousness is an interpersonal quality.  It is the passing of grace between people.  If you are feeling awkward or unsure, a gracious host can set you at ease.  If someone has hurt you, you can graciously accept their apology, just as you can graciously apologize for hurting someone.  It involves having the capacity for compassion, courtesy, kindness, and mercy.

Have you ever done something that made you feel awkward or embarrassed and then someone said something or did something that put you at ease?  Have you ever put your foot in your mouth and then had someone forgive your insensitivity?  Have you ever messed up in such a way that your relationship with someone else became estranged, only to have another person graciously refuse to cut you off entirely?  That’s grace.  We can recognize the grace that comes from graciousness.

How do the workings of grace play out in your life?  I find grace, I experience grace, in the receiving of love.  When it comes right down to it, if I’m completely honest with myself, the love that I receive is not something I can really say that I’ve earned.  And, if I continue to receive it in the future, it won’t be because of merit.

Our positive theological anthropology, our positive view of human nature, does not guarantee that we will never be wretched.  It doesn’t guarantee that our fate in life will be determined by actuarial tables, by an accounting of our credits and debts, our rising up and sinking down.  No, our positive anthropology insists that our own wretchedness isn’t the final word, the end of the story, or our eternal fate.  Grace is many things, and one of the things that it is graciousness, the ability to redeem and bless each other.  As Unitarian Universalists we are the inheritors of twin theological traditions.  The Universalists spoke of an all-loving God, ever bestowing the great gift of grace.  The Unitarians spoke of a humanity worthy of love, still worthy of love despite any evidence that may be produced to the contrary. 

May we be both the givers and receivers of grace.